In a better world, everyone would have equal access to therapy. Unfortunately, this is not the case. People of color and the LGBTQIA+ community struggle to find therapists who take care of their mental health needs. Eric Coly, a black entrepreneur from Los Angeles, changed the game with his groundbreaking app, Ayana Therapy. In an interview with Mahevash Muses, he talks about his inspiration, his journey, and his vision. Over to him.
Who or what inspired you to launch Ayana?
The premise of Ayana surrounds the story of a very dear friend of mine who couldn’t find a mental health counselor. This was a couple of years ago. So, I proposed developing a product that could offer access to a counselor, but do so in a much more culturally nuanced way. It would be to get away from the notion of: “I’m a Black woman, I need a Black counselor”. We are a lot more layered, a lot more complex. In tandem with that, I had also been through some very difficult times because of my past mental health issues. So it’s those two items combined that have propelled and helped develop Ayana.
What prevents minorities and people of marginalized communities from accessing therapy? How does your app remove these hurdles?
What prevents them from getting access to therapy is cost, lack of access to insurance, lack of diversity, and stigma. We’ve addressed the lack of access by offering a very affordable price. We are also working on accepting insurance to use our app.
Now when it comes to lack of diversity and stigma, our job is considerably harder. The issues of cultural competency and stigma are very critical because even when someone is able to afford a counselor, they’re rarely able to find the right one. Minorities and marginalized people prefer counselors who have shared lived experiences, so we’ve developed a culturally sensitive platform to make this possible. We have a newer, innovative questionnaire whose goal is to get to know you better, in order for you to be seen and heard. In addition, we have a very strong presence online with the goal to destigmatize mental health in communities of color.
Could you elaborate on how Ayana works differently from other mental health apps?
Within our industry, the questionnaire that future users fill out to find a counselor is often quite Eurocentric. It’s difficult to capture cultural nuances, so we’ve deconstructed it and added some culturally relevant items. For example, when we ask someone about their racial or ethnic origin, they aren’t just Black. They could be from America, Ethiopia, or the Caribbean. We consider this by asking how important it is for them to have a counselor from the same region; with nuanced questions like this, we’re able to find a better match. So even as we want to know whether you want to have a Black counselor, we also want to know how important it is for you that they are from the same location as you.
The same applies to our questions about gender, sexual orientation, and religion. For example, you can specify which is more important to you: that your counselor should be a) Christian or b) queer. This is also why we named the company Ayana, which means ‘mirror’ in Bengali. We want to make sure that we look at you, and we want to make sure that you feel understood, seen, and heard. Ayana is by the marginalized, for the marginalized.
So you make sure there is a match between a client and their therapist…how else do you ensure a great experience for your users?
We have a journal in the app that you can get on every day and write about your experiences from the day or the week prior. Only you and your counselor have access to this journal. It gives you a chance to address some struggles that you might have faced prior to speaking to your counselor.
There are very few apps geared towards people of color with an emphasis on intersectionality, which means there’s very little data out there. We are among the first to create such a platform, and we are able to analyze our user data to better understand their needs.
What has been your greatest takeaway from your experience as a mental health advocate?
I think we jumped on this particular boat at probably the best possible time. There are more and more people like me—people of color and people from marginalized communities—who are mental health advocates. It shows how much progress America has made when it comes to mental health. This type of endeavor would have been ten times harder five years ago. Still, we have a long way to go and obstacles that we face every day. But the fact that I’ve met people like me in this space gives me hope and solace.
It is very hard for someone of color to make noise in a space where you don’t have enough resources. We were lucky that we were able to get resources from people around us. What I’ve learned is that our success is intimately tied to a community of people that believes in us.
How has your role as the founder of Ayana impacted your relationship with your mental health?
I went through a set of mental health issues that were difficult to bear, and developing Ayana has given me the chance to do some self-healing. I became courageous about speaking about what I’ve gone through. It armed me with the knowledge, the confidence, and the self-esteem to speak more openly about what I’ve gone through. My self-healing process empowered me to work on Ayana without a background in counseling or technology. Had I not created Ayana, what I suffered from probably would have been worse.
With all the incidents of racism over the past year, diversity in therapy is the need of the hour in America. What is Ayana doing to deal with these issues?
Our launch coincided with COVID-19. There was also the unfortunate demise of George Floyd and other unsettling events that took place last year. Corporate America thought of us as a possible support system to offer to their employees. We got approached by some of the biggest tech companies in the world, with the city of San Francisco being one of them.
We received 15,000 emails from people needing our help. In order to appropriately address it, we recently launched our channel in May in support of Mental Health Month. We are now offering access to a counselor at $60 per session, which is quite affordable when you look at the overall industry.
What changes do you expect Ayana to make in the mental health field?
In an interview last year, I said that I want the term Ayana to be used colloquially as a verb, much like Uber is. “Did you Uber yesterday?” is a question that’s been normalized. Making the question “Have you been able to Ayana yesterday?” just as popular is my goal. It would also be wonderful to have a partnership with the U.S. government to offer access to Ayana to people who are formerly incarcerated. I’d also love to offer Ayana to school systems in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Currently, we plan on offering counseling for teens, families, and couples by the end of the year – along with access to medication by the first quarter of next year. The grand vision is to both normalize access to counseling on the local level and become globally available.
What has been your biggest challenge and what has been your greatest accomplishment?
My biggest challenge has been finding the right team and developing a great product. Having a trustworthy, capable team is crucial. Where we are now is nothing compared to where I want us to be, but people have access to us, and they like our app. Honestly, I’m still trying to assess my accomplishments as a founder. I couldn’t be more proud and appreciative of my reliable and supportive team. We may be small but we’re growing.
Eric Coly is the founder of Ayana Therapy, a mental health app that connects marginalized communities with licensed therapists who share their cultural traits, identities, and experiences. Visit https://www.ayanatherapy.com/ to book a session for yourself or your organization.